Cultural Clarity

We all need moments to ourselves. Moments to escape into a quiet space without distraction. A place to clear our heads.

When I am in Louisville, it is a leisurely stroll down Bardstown road with a cup of something caffeinated from Heine Brothers, heading towards the trails of Cherokee Park.

When I am at Notre Dame, it is a quiet park bench by the lake, looking over the water, watching the golden dome reflect off the surface.

When traveling abroad, it has often been a corner coffee shop, bar, or restaurant where I can tuck away for a few minutes alone to write, read, reflect, and daydream.

Here in Kenya, within the compound’s walls, it’s become the simple living room or the quiet chapel. (I will fully admit that the chapel has become a preferred spot because the wifi signal reaches within the walls of that sacred place, allowing for a digital adoration.) Outside the gated compound, it’s impossible to find a quiet space as the city bustles with movement, and my white skin beacons attention from all over. So I settle for a guarded walk through the compound and “adoration” in the chapel.

In those silent moments, my mind races as I try to process the million tiny little moments, cultural differences, and curious circumstances.

  • In the mono-cultural bubble of Kenya, outside of the larger cities, exposure to “the other” is rare and uncommon. I have been told multiple times that I am the first white person they have seen. Students have frequently asked to touch my skin, and more often, they sneak grabs at my hands and arms – pulling and tugging, surprised that it “feels the same” and “doesn’t rub off.” In crowds and during free time, students pick at my hair and rub their fingers through it, questioning its “light feathery feeling.”
  • During school assemblies with parents, lengthy speeches are given by every faculty and staff member. Afterward, feedback from parents is encouraged, and every parent is expected to provide some insight. Each person speaks for no less than 15 minutes. The assembly lasts longer than 3 hours before parents and students are dismissed and allowed time to tour the campus, enjoy lunch, and share free time with their sons. Yet, regardless of the length, there were no complaints from the parents or students, and all remained attentive throughout the entire time. (It was only the two Americans present who found the process a “waste of time.”)
  • Almost daily, wasps fly into classrooms and hover over desks, and students continue without a worry in the world. Ants overtake counters, colonize corners, and parade through rooms, and seemingly no notice is given to the present army. There is a near-total lack of concern and recognition for wasps, ants, flies, spiders, and other bugs.
  • Power outages seem as natural as the rising and the setting of the sun. Small rechargeable lights and candles emerge from nearby shelves, and life returns as usual. When the power returns some surprising hour later, the only difference in life is the length of the candle wax. Even when I visited the club, the power went out for a few minutes, and no complaint was issued. I distinctly remember a day in Keenan when a section of the building lost power for a couple of hours, and a student drove to the store to purchase an extra-long extension cord because he “couldn’t live without power any longer.” I also recall a few times when the power was out at St. X, and school was canceled. Here in Kenya, we had a power outage all day, classes went on as expected, and it wasn’t noticed until we attempted to plug in a speaker for free time.
  • From the learned adult to the school child, surprising words fill in the blank, “Does ___ exist in America?” I have been asked about the existence of the following in America: corn, lions, chicken, beans, Kentucky Fried Chicken, dogs, elephants, zebras, cows, farms, poverty, rural areas, beer, and an endless list of innocuous items.
  • The shock from students that I’ve never met some randomly named American celebrity. As if the fact that we live in the same country means we know each other or live close by.
  • Prostitution is legal and not seen as a taboo, homosexuality is seen as anathema, and any discussion of LGBTQ+ topics is met with strict opposition. While discussing the topic of human sexuality for a theology course, it was my first instance where students felt that the Church’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues was not harsh enough and expressed staunch criticism for anyone who was openly gay or who supported gay. (Students were shocked to learn that I knew gay people and had even attended and supported same-sex marriages.) Students even shared that it’s not uncommon for openly gay individuals to be kicked out of schools, criminally punished, and even murdered. When challenged if this was problematic, students gave little pushback.
  • Prices are egregious here. Costs of items here in Kenya are often 2-3-times more expensive than in the US. This isn’t a result of COVID or inflation. This results from corporate greed, government corruption, and international tariffs. The cost of a bottle of Head and Shoulders is roughly $15. The cost of an iPhone here in Kenya is approximately two and a half times the cost in America.
  • A total disregard for traffic laws, speed limits, and lanes. Traffic technically “keeps left,” but if that speed doesn’t work for you, you can swiftly move into oncoming traffic until the oncoming vehicle is too close for comfort.

How can one process the events of a journey around the world? On previous trips, I’ve traveled further distances, had much less access to comfortable living conditions, and lived in more remote places. Yet, the cultural shock and constant examinations have never been this extreme.

One of the things I have found to be the most challenging and exhausting about my time in Kenya is the lack of diversity. With so little exposure and interaction with the outside world, my free time is often spent with a deluge of questions. Perhaps my privilege is speaking here, for not having had this experience before in the US or during my travels to other countries? Nonetheless, in the United States, even in the least diverse rural regions, exposure to “the outside world” occurs to some degree. From international restaurants to interfaith interactions, nearly everyone is granted some momentary exposure to “the other.”

The longer I spend in Kenya, the more I have valued the rich diversity and international mix of cultures that are present in America. At a time when some people are calling for a closure of the US border and limits on immigration, I find that desire to be asinine and backward. What makes America great is the international diversity and free sharing of knowledge. Just think of how delicious the Taco Bell Pizza is!? Its existence could only occur in the international peatry-dish of America.

In a way, I am those kids tugging and pulling at my skin and hair. I arrived with jaded questions, obscure understandings, and misguided opinions of life in Kenya. But unlike my skin and hair, as we tug and pull at those questions, layers slowly peel away and rub off.

In the solitude of the sitting room, the darkness of the evening slowly creeps into the powerless room, as I continue to peck at my phone and listen to the sound of the pounding rain. I am grateful for the chance to clear my head, reflect and spend a few minutes alone.

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3 Comments

  1. I remember as a child the first time I was actually close to a black person, asking these exact same questions about their shiny skin and different hair. That was 50 years ago. It’s like time has stood still for these people. Thank you for sharing.
    ❤️Mom

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  2. Bobby⭐️, This was an absolutely fascinating read. The difference between the American culture and that of the Kenyan culture is vast. I hope you are hanging in there with everything the best you can. Keep finding peace in your chapel. Totally Amazed !!! Bergy

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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